Liz Carmouche is one of the premier fighters in Bellator MMA. She won the women’s flyweight world championship a year ago, and next week she will defend her title for the second time.

It’s been a journey for Carmouche. Coming out in the sport over a decade ago, she acknowledges the claims of out bisexual fighter Jeff Molina about homophobia in the sport, and the differences between the men’s and women’s categories.

“I haven’t seen much outward homophobia toward women,” she told Outsports as she was driving to train in Virginia Beach, away from her wife and son, ahead of her fight. “But I certainly think there’s a clear atmosphere presented for men that’s not inviting to them to be out.”

She acknowledges that some people in the sport of mixed martial arts — particularly men — continue to harbor issues with gay athletes.

“I’ve heard men saying they weren’t comfortable with their wives training, because they might be training with some gay women,” she said, “or they didn’t want a straight man touching their girlfriend.”

Carmouche says the local environments across the MMA world are largely driven by trainers and gym owners. If someone at a leadership position in a gym has some issue with LGBTQ fighters, one of those athletes may have more difficulty finding a home and succeeding.

“I think there are some places where gay men would be rejected, and others are just putting out that masculine energy,” she said. “It comes down to the trainers and the owners of the gyms. I know people who have left their gyms because they didn’t want to be rejected. It really comes down to the leaders and the atmosphere they create.”

For her part, Carmouche has realized that training with people who accept LGBTQ athletes elevates the confidence and performance of such fighters, including herself.

“I look for coaches who are welcoming,” she said. “I want to know that people I’m training with are gaining self-confidence and being empowered, so they feel like they gain something beyond just technique.

“In an environment that’s judgmental, that can’t happen.”

While the atmosphere in the sport continues to improve, Carmouche said she “100%” has lost opportunities because she came out over a decade ago, before same-sex marriage was legalized across the United States.

“I think more and more as society evolves, and more people come out, fewer opportunities have fallen through the cracks,” she said. “I was encouraged back then to go back in the closet. There were sponsors who were interested and lost interest when they found out I was gay.”

Now headed into her sixth bout with Bellator, and her second defense of the Bellator Women’s Flyweight title, she is ready for a whole new challenge.

“At different points in my career I’ve been thinking too much about self-preservation, making a mistake,” she said. “I came into Bellator with the attitude that I’m going to lay everything on the line, and that’s embracing the violence that MMA can be.

“Now I go out there and put it all on the line. And I’ll shake their hand after.”

Today, Carmouche and her wife train dogs to assist injured veterans and autistic children. Carmouche herself is a Marine vet.

Raising a son together with her wife, Carmouche has found a way to balance all of her important family time with the demands of being a professional fighter.

“When I get home, I’m able to work out an hour in the morning and then go to Legoland or go horseback riding, or take my son to school. And when the fight is on the line, then it’s a full-time switch and I’m the professional athlete.”

You can watch Liz Carmouche defend her title against DeAnna Bennett on April 21 on Showtime.